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The 6-Point Guide to Combating Military Romance Scams

Fraudsters target veterans or pretend to be military to exploit your support for our troops


spinner image Romance scams are everywhere and on the rise. Veterans are especially vulnerable because they tend to be financially secure and trusting.
Yarek Waszul

Romance scams are everywhere and on the rise. Veterans are especially vulnerable because they tend to be financially secure and trusting — selflessness is part of their DNA, and they often presume the best in people.

In 2022, the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) received more than 19,000 complaints of romance scams that resulted in a total loss of almost $736 million. USAA and the FTC report an 80 percent increase in the number of cases since 2020.

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Veterans and serving military can become victims of these scams both by being targeted for “romantic” pursuits or by having their identity stolen. A Texas man was recently sentenced to more than three years in prison for an online romance scam that used the identities of real U.S. military generals to target victims.

It’s important to know how these scams work, how to avoid them and what to do if you suspect you’ve been a victim.

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How romance scams work 

Romance scams can happen both in-person and online, but the digital version is more prominent and growing. They target people’s desire for connection with others. 

“One of the key things to understand is these people look for your vulnerabilities and then take advantage of them,” said Donna Andersen, who runs Lovefraud.com, a website she started after being married to a man who said he had been in the Australian military despite never having served. “Everybody has vulnerabilities.”  

Charlotte-based FBI Special Agent Brian Cyprian said it was easy for scammers to find information online to exploit: “Be careful what you post. The scammers will use that against you.”

Romance scams are unique in their intimacy and the vulnerability they require of their victims, and the length of time over which they can occur as the fraudster cultivates the target’s trust.

“We see people taking the time to develop these online relationships,” Cyprian said. “They are building their victims’ confidence over time and getting them to do things they typically wouldn’t do.”

Requests for money

Scammers leverage the victim’s trust and sympathy with a hard-luck tale that often culminates in a request for money.

“There’s a story behind every one that leads to the victim deciding it’s okay to send money to this person,” said Jeff Wolfe, vice president of fraud at USAA. “It might be as benign as ‘I’m in a jam and need a little help.’ They might be asking for a single payment or a series of payments.”

Scammers are likely to target those they suspect have a steady income to exploit such as veterans with a salary, benefits or pensions.

Warning signs 

Scammers can be charming and charismatic and are good at making you feel you’ve finally found love, according to Anderson. The scammer is likely to shower you with attention and affection, a strategy called “love bombing.” And you’re likely to feel a sense of sexual magnetism.  

“The problem with those warning signs is they sound wonderful,” Andersen said. “Who wouldn’t want to meet a date who is charming and exciting, and thinks you’re wonderful, and thinks you’re destined to be together?”  

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But if your antennae are up, you’ll see the intense and rushed bout of affection as a red flag. “If someone professes love within a day or two, that would be a concern,” Cyprian said.

How to protect yourself from romance scams

Be prepared and listen to your gut. “The most important thing is to trust your intuition,” Andersen said. “Your body will warn you that something is off. The key is to listen when you get that warning.”

Another red flag is urgent or rushed requests for money, especially demands to send it digitally overseas or an insistence that you keep your help a secret.

“You should never send money to someone you haven’t met face-to-face or have a mutual friend who can vouch for that individual,” Cyprian said. “If they create artificial deadlines to rush you, that’s something I’d be concerned about. If they tell you not to tell anyone about the relationship or what you’re about to do, that would be a red flag.”

What to do if you’ve been scammed

Cut off all communication if you suspect you’ve been a victim of a romance scam. This can be difficult. “It can be hard for victims to give up on the future that’s been promised to them,” Cyprian said. “But the fraudster won’t stop until you do that.”

Then immediately report the fraud to your financial institution. “Time is of the essence,” Wolfe said. “If you’ve sent a wire and then realize you’ve been scammed, every minute counts.”

Finally, file a complaint with the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center and contact your local FBI field office or other law enforcement agency.

Help others by sharing your story

If you choose to speak out publicly to tell others how to avoid what happened to you, we applaud your bravery. Please contact us here with your story.

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